Funding sparks boom in small-scale solar projects

Attractive lease rates for ‘micro-gen’ projects have many farmers thinking 
of doing their own

Although smaller-scale community-organized solar farms have, so far, been left in the lurch, there’s good news for farmers and other rural landowners interested in solar.

Growing Forward 2 offers grants of up to $50,000 for ‘micro-gen’ solar projects where the power is used in the production of a primary commodity.

That kind of government support has caught the attention of many producers.

  • Read more: Community-based project lost in the shuffle over solar power

“We get lots of requests to speak about what we’ve learned, how to avoid the pitfalls, those kind of things,” said Jordan Webber, economic development officer for Starland County. “Those presentations are always very well attended.”

Much of the interest stems from the investment opportunity. Webber said commercial installers have been canvassing farmers in order to lease their land — often at rates far exceeding typical lease values.

“Some of (the producers) are ecstatic and say, ‘Where do I sign?’ while others are saying, ‘If they’re willing to lease my land for that much, we should be installing these systems ourselves.’ That dialogue goes one of two ways: ‘Either I’m going to do it on my farm or I’m going to talk about doing it in my community and gathering a few other people for a larger project.’”

This type of micro-gen system exports electricity to the grid when the sun is shining brightly and draws power when it’s not (using a two-way meter to measure the flow in or out).

“In an instant of time if you produce more power than what your yard is consuming, that difference is being sold back to the grid,” said Webber. “Say your yard is currently consuming 800 watts in the middle of the day and you have a 6,000-watt system that’s getting full sunlight. It’s at maximum production, so you’re producing 6,000 watts. In that moment of time, that 5,200-watt difference is being exported.”

Once the sunlight fades, the farm will start drawing from the grid.

“Typically you would export power all day and import power all night,” said Webber. “So the credit you see on your bill is based on the amount you exported during the day.”

Funding for these micro-gen photovoltaic solar projects — which typically produce in the neighbourhood of 150 kilowatts annually — comes from a Growing Forward 2 program. The On-Farm Solar Voltaics – On-Farm Energy Management Sub-Program offers up to $50,000 for systems. In addition to the power being used for production of a primary commodity, the systems have to be positioned to optimize sunshine (and minimize shading) and purchased after April 1, 2013 (including already-installed systems). Eligible systems must be approved under Alberta’s micro-generation legislation and have warranties on solar modules, racking, inverters and/or micro-inverters. For more information go to www.growingforward.alberta.ca and follow the links.

In late February, the province announced a $36-million rebate program for solar installation on residential and commercial buildings.

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